One Crimson Thread, by Micheal O’Siadhail, Bloodaxe Books, 157 pp, £12, ISBN: 9781780371276
One Crimson Thread comprises 150 sonnets and is a poetic journal tracing Micheal O’Siadhail’s experiences over the two-year period which culminated in his wife’s death from Parkinson’s disease. Each poem homes in on a phase or aspect of O’Siadhail’s response. The poems are connected and form a whole but they are also separate and self-contained; their cumulative effect is to give the reader a stop-motion version of the more sequential reel of traditional prose memoirs of illness and grieving, a process which prevents the authenticity of each moment in the struggle from slipping below narrative momentum.
A long period of coping with the earlier stages of the disease has preceded the final chaotic phase which sees the fabric of the couple’s lengthy and positive marriage under enormous strain.
Dementia, a name for you my love?
In such a word do our two lives unknit?
The journal is in part O’Siadhail’s testimony to his wife’s spirit in the face of a terrible disease, a disease which of its nature makes war on human dignity. The poems bear witness to the couple’s past life and love together, asserting a persisting strength against that of the disease. “Our love still one inwoven crimson thread”: the struggle to maintain that which was once automatic against the new reality of Bríd’s decline is there in the word “still”, an ominous word which, along with others of similar import, recurs throughout these poems.
The image of the title itself is woven through the sequence. “Our thin but still unravelled crimson thread” even becomes the writing of the sequence itself: “How can I best weave the crimson thread […]?” Then in sonnet 80, with Bríd staying at a care home “two buildings” away from the couple’s long-shared home, the difficulty of such separate living, and the possibility of surmounting it, is expressed like this: “I think how children played with thread and tins, / Made telephones […]” O’Siadhail struggles to hold to the thread even as it seems to slip away.
Interweaving is present as a theme but also implicit in the many sonnet forms O’Siadhail puts into play in the sequence. The first twenty-one of the 150 poems close with a Petrarchan a-b-c-a-b-c rhyming sestet, then 22 to 41 are an unlucky thirteen lines each, with an unrhymed last line isolated in a stanza of its own: as Bríd’s condition deteriorates, “I hold the line alone without your rhyme.” Sonnets 42 to 61 close with a slant-rhyming near-Shakespearian couplet: “My loneliness a ragged broken rhyme.” After sonnet 61 the poems settle into blocks of fourteen lines unseparated by stanza breaks, and their structuring moves from Petrarchan to Shakespearian and then back to Petrarchan to record Bríd’s last days.
The classic sonnet’s dialectical structure, with its volta at the ninth line typically presenting a new direction of thought and leading to the struggle to reconcile both tendencies by the fourteenth line’s closure, serves – besides associations of Petrarch mourning his Laura and of Shakespeare’s eulogies of love over time – O’Siadhail’s purpose; it is a microcosm of what the sequence as a whole does, wavering between positive and negative, and with an act of will coming down on the side of the positive. That determination, almost a point of principle, is like the final sonnet’s “cord of covenant until the end”.
O’Siadhail is staunch, dogged and moral as he faces, day in and day out, the painful decline of Bríd’s cognitive and physical powers. The challenge of her decline, the patient’s pain and growing mental chaos, his own exhaustion and the unavoidable guilt which descends on him all conspire to create, in this final period, a distance from the long-lived, loving and successful relationship which was anchored in the secure “nest” Bríd had made for them.
In response to ever-growing challenges, the struggling O’Siadhail clutches firmly to the single crimson thread of the couple’s love. His refusal to let go is an act both of will and of loyalty to their past and to the accumulated emotional space that past comprises in his being: “Without your hand my life’s an empty glove.”
Yet an alternative narrative which follows from the power of the destructive disease in its final phase also weaves throughout and offers a backdrop to the poet’s refusal to abandon the vocabulary of active love while life remains. It cries out in the fear that the dying woman is no longer his Bríd:
Are you the woman I once thought I knew…
I can’t believe this changeling can be you
Such sentiments are beaten back by guilt and unease: “But do these words betray our years of trust?” Ironically it tends to be Bríd who is free from such anxieties and clear-headed in appraising their situation. She sees a future where she is gone and he carries on:
“I know” you whisper “I fulfilled your need
But if you find a new or younger flame
I wouldn’t want you feeling guilt or shame.”
Throughout all this variation the rhythm of the individual lines is more insistently iambic in its beat than Shakespeare’s ever was. This high rhythm in less successful sonnets lends itself to a sense at times of over-facility in filling out the form, and the question arises, are these classic fixed forms the most suitable vehicles for such rawly diaristic emotion?
“The home’s hours measured out by metronome”: the irony in that word “home” is drawn out elsewhere. There are resonances here of time’s inevitability, though the breaks between sonnets and the solving resolution of their last lines push against it. Against the metronome of the home’s hours stand “The tick and nod of our love’s metronome,” and when, on her weekend stay back at home with him, O’Saidhail calls Bríd “my guesting bride”, that word bride itself is a defiance of time and of all that has befallen the couple.
“Bríd” and “bride” echo each other throughout the book, a chime that imbues their marriage with the intensity of its first day: implicitly the two are forever bride and groom. That affirmation defies the shifts of role that Parkinson’s has imposed: O’Siadhail is “Your minder now and still your lovesick spouse.” Shakespeare’s couplet
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long
resonates in lines such as “And yet such heartache keeps enhancing you” and “Each glimpse of you is now a ransomed gift”.
There are lines about memory, themselves more memorable for their rhythmical regularity. “In age do memories become our dreams?” – later in the sequence, after Bríd’s death, “You’d…” is charged with both its past and conditional meanings. “Your kneecaps in the hollows of my knees”: such intimacy, remembered, teases with simultaneous presence and absence. Tender is brought out in phrases like these in all its double-edged meaning: “showing gentleness, kindness and affection”, one dictionary has it, and “sensitive to pain”. But again, there is light with the shadow: in the couple’s daily trysts at the home, “We thrill at every date although we speak / The language of a lifetime in between.”
Later in the sequence, with Bríd lying between life and death in hospital,
I yearn for signs. I flood remembered years.
You seem to move in my mirage of tears.
Murmuring words to her and unsure whether or not she hears, “My voice is keeping vigil by your side.”
O no, I’ll never be an elegist
And you won’t slip into my yesterday
Refusing to consign her to the past, after her death O’Siadhail says “We live our lives now in this double tense”, one that contains and includes “The life we lived before this afterlife”. It is “As if in absence you are yet more you”. The beloved and the life that was shared are present through memory and “gratitude is all” – the phrase is repeated with determination. The depth of the love they shared is brought home in an emotional detail like this one:
I’d never understood
That talk of being free from this or that;
My freedom was my being free for you.
Reading these 150 sonnets we witness and accompany O’Siadhail as he struggles to shore up emotional defences in the face of a slow and remorseless tide. It is a diary of his trial in observing Brid’s trial. His greatest defence against the approaching end is the experience of their life and love which is summoned regularly and pressed into service against the disease’s ravages. An equal emotional propulsion is present in the moments when the crimson thread does not protect O’Siadhail from the full bleakness into which the couple have fallen, and it is the dialectic between these impetuses which gives the sequence its force.